by Steven Marrocco – MMAWeekly.com
Rafael Cavalcante almost didn’t become a fighter. Had Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira not stood up for him, he might still be in his basement, practicing jiu-jitsu with friends.

Cavalcante, from small-town Ilha Solteira in the state of Sao Paulo, Brazil, was a 24-year-old living in Cuiaba and studying to become a veterinarian. His university track was bovine artificial insemination – helping cows get pregnant.

But he also had a tendency to get into fights. Outside school, guys would challenge him when they found out he did jiu-jitsu.

“The fights look for me,” Cavalcante said as he sat in the green room of HDNet Studios in Studio City, Calif., after a taping of Inside MMA. “It’s okay. I like it.”

Before and after class, he would roll with friends in his makeshift gym and attend boxing classes at night. His senior year, he went to a boxing card his friend was fighting on. Nogueira was there scouting talent.

The MMA star chatted up Cavalcante’s girlfriend and asked for a local place to train where there weren’t too many people. The girlfriend gave him Rafael’s number.

“I answered the call, and the voice said, ‘it’s Rodrigo,'” said Cavalcante. “What? ‘Nogueira. Minotauro.’ I couldn’t believe it.”

The two trained together in the sweltering basement, and a friendship was born. Three months later, he got another call. Nogueira, who’d since returned to Rio, wanted him to join his team.

“My dad had three colors when I told him that,” said Cavalcante, who at the time only needed to complete his residency to become a licensed veterinarian. “You don’t go there, you have your job; you have a lot of things to do. I don’t know against my family.

“I told this to Rodrigo, and he said, ‘don’t worry, I go there.'”

Nogueira flew back and had a heart-to-heart with Cavalcante’s father.

“This boy is gonna be a champion,” he said. “You can believe me. Let’s make a deal: you know who I am. If this kid doesn’t become a champion, I’ll cover his bills for the rest of his life.”

Cavalcante left for Rio soon thereafter, and so began his mixed martial arts career. Nogueira paid the bills while he learned how to fight.

Cavalcante is now 29 years old and scheduled to make his Strikeforce debut at “Shields vs. Lawler” this Saturday in St. Louis against Mike Kyle. 7-1 in his pro career, many insiders believe he’s one of the next big things from Brazil.

He kept his nickname from his basement jiu-jitsu days: “Feijao,” Portuguese for “black beans.” At first, he snapped at friends when they used it, but it stuck.

Nogueira, along with teammates Anderson Silva, Fabio Maldonado, Andre Galvao, and others, have become Cavalcante’s fight-night family, one that’s not easy to gain access to.

“When I met Nogueira in Rio, I look at everything he do,” said Cavalcante. “I looked at that, and said I can be like him. I want to be that. If I came here, I want to be a champion. I saw other guys training like 30 percent.

“It’s such a difference if you have a family like us. If your friends do the wrong things, and you stay with them, you’re gonna do that do. If your friends keep focus with you, it’s hard to break. A lot of people just see the fighter, they don’t see behind him. You need to have a lot of things. You need trainers, you need to eat well, you have to have the right person to put you in the right place in the right time.”

Recently, Cavalcante has found difficulty finding the right place and time. He was scheduled to take on Renato “Babalu” Sobral for the EliteXC light heavyweight title in November, but the promotion took a dive before the two could meet. After escaping from contractual limbo in February, they were rebooked for Saturday’s fight, but Sobral backed out, citing complications due to his wife’s pregnancy.

Cavalcante’s replacement opponent, Jared Hamman, broke his nose two weeks ago, forcing him out. Strikeforce offered only one replacement – Kyle, a controversial fighter who’d undergone a two-year suspension for striking a fighter after a referee stoppage.

Ed Soares, Cavalcante’s manager, says opponent shuffling is a common problem amongst his clients.

“It doesn’t just happen to him,” said Soares. “It happens to everyone in our camp. And you know what? In a way it’s good, but in a way, it’s smart. Because they know that whoever they face that’s managed by me, and trains with them, it’s not going to be an easy fight. If you’re looking for an easy fight, don’t accept any fights against our fighters. Because you’re not going to get an easy fight.

“Babalu has everything to lose and nothing to gain. Me, as Feijao’s manager, those are the kind of fights I want to take.”

Soares expected Cavalcante to face Sobral for the Strikeforce light heavyweight title in August, but Sobral’s recently confirmed fight with Gegard Mousasi at Affliction 3 on Aug. 1 makes that doubtful, likely pushing the bout back another month or two.

While he’s rightfully frustrated by the changes, Cavalcante is ready to take on Kyle.

“He has good stand-up,” he said. “It looks like he’s not so good on the ground. But I think he’s tough, he’s coming to fight. I go to his weakness. I’m going to go to his weakness first, and after, I bring him to what I want.”

Though he’s abandoned the idea of becoming a veterinarian down the line, he still loves animals and has two pit bulls, the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu player’s choice of dog.

He’s eternally grateful for the opportunity given to him.

“I have a mirror,” he said. “My friends, they are champions, and I try to do what they do.”